Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Just how big a disaster is the war in Iraq?

The war has already been lost. All that remains is determining the manner and timing of the American retreat. There is little chance that Iraqi forces can be bolstered for long enough to provide even a patina of success to cover up the reality of defeat. Even with increasingly indiscriminate air support, there is no popular support for the American backed government or its troops.

Military historian Martin Van Creveld thus argues the model of Vietnamization that the administration seems to be hoping for can not work.
What had to come, has come. The question is no longer if American forces will be withdrawn, but how soon— and at what cost. In this respect, as in so many others, the obvious parallel to Iraq is Vietnam.

Confronted by a demoralized army on the battlefield and by growing opposition at home, in 1969 the Nixon administration started withdrawing most of its troops in order to facilitate what it called the "Vietnamization" of the country. The rest of America's forces were pulled out after Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiated a "peace settlement" with Hanoi. As the troops withdrew, they left most of their equipment to the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam which just two years later, after the fall of Saigon, lost all of it to the communists.

Clearly this is not a pleasant model to follow, but no other alternative appears in sight.

Whereas North Vietnam at least had a government with which it was possible to arrange a cease-fire, in Iraq the opponent consists of shadowy groups of terrorists with no central organization or command authority. And whereas in the early 1970s equipment was still relatively plentiful, today's armed forces are the products of a technology-driven revolution in military affairs. Whether that revolution has contributed to anything besides America's national debt is open to debate. What is beyond question, though, is that the new weapons are so few and so expensive that even the world's largest and richest power can afford only to field a relative handful of them.

Therefore, simply abandoning equipment or handing it over to the Iraqis, as was done in Vietnam, is simply not an option. And even if it were, the new Iraqi army is by all accounts much weaker, less skilled, less cohesive and less loyal to its government than even the South Vietnamese army was. For all intents and purposes, Washington might just as well hand over its weapons directly to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
However, the alternatives are not pleasant either. Van Creveld predicts that a classical withdrawal
probably will require several months and incur a sizable number of casualties. As the pullout proceeds, Iraq almost certainly will sink into an all-out civil war from which it will take the country a long time to emerge— if, indeed, it can do so at all. All this is inevitable and will take place whether George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice like it or not.
And then we will still have to deal with the growing maelstrom we have set into motion.

Van Creveld ends his piece looking for a point of historical comparison. He argues that this is "the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C sent his legions into Germany and lost them." I think the description is a bit unfair to Augustus though. Losing the legions in Germany had little lasting impact on the power or stability of the Roman empire. The current war is much more catastrophic and will only get worse.

America is now set on a course of irreversible decline. Even if we were allowed to get a better set of leaders, the problems George III has created on every level are likely to prove intractable.

A better historical analogy is truly disastrous Sicilian expedition c. 415 BC. launched by the Athenian Empire at the height of their power. They lost the war, their empire and their democracy.


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